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Dealing with the stress of exams

After a weird couple of years, it’s probably quite hard to remember what a ‘normal’ exam season feels like. Many exams were cancelled altogether during the pandemic, while others switched to online. This year, everyone’s sitting them in person again; and that’s yet another change, which could add to the worry and uncertainty.

Exam stress is normal, of course, but this year some students might well be feeling it more than they used to. A poll carried out in February with the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) found that 95% of school staff had noticed an increase in anxiety in general amongst their pupils.

For those who used to dread the pressure of the exam room the change to online might have come as a relief. Others might be glad to get back to traditional exam conditions, if they tend to concentrate and perform better in that environment.

Some students might be anxious about whether everything will run smoothly and safely this year. If this is the case for you, the government’s Department for Education has put together this blog – Exams in 2022: Everything you need to know – which could put your mind at ease.

Here are some ideas to help you address and manage any feelings of stress or worry you may have in the run up to your exams, and get ready to tackle the challenge ahead.

Be prepared – know exactly what you need to do. Make sure you know well in advance when and where each exam is, and what the procedure for taking it will be, including any health and safety rules in place. This will help you feel more at ease.

Stick to a routine. You’ll no longer be tied to the normal day of classes or lectures, so it’s tempting to fall out of good habits. Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day, and the same goes for eating meals. This is a simple thing, but it’ll help you keep your head together. Make space for relaxation and fun in your routine too, and reward yourself when you’ve completed a task or finished revising.

Knock procrastination on the head! If you find you’re putting revision off, tell yourself you’ll work on it for five minutes and see how you get on. Chances are you’ll get into the flow and feel motivated to keep going.

Challenge negative thoughts. If you tend to feel a bit panicky before exams, and thoughts such as ‘I’m rubbish at exams!’ or ‘I can’t cope!’ start creeping in, then you’re most certainly not alone. Recognise the thought, and put it under the spotlight. Is there any evidence that it’s true? What about evidence that shows otherwise? For example, maybe you failed one exam last year, but passed all the rest. If you find yourself avoiding revision because of any negative thoughts, remind yourself that they are simply thoughts. You choose how you respond to them.

Be kind to yourself. This is yet another adjustment to cope with, after some really challenging times. If you find it hard to concentrate, or you’re not getting as much done as you hoped, don’t beat yourself up! If you find you’re being self-critical, try asking yourself ‘What would I say to a friend in this situation?’.

Remember everyone’s in the same boat. You won’t be alone in this – many of your friends and classmates will be feeling exactly the same. Make sure you talk to your friends and family regularly, and if you’re struggling tell them how you're feeling.

Focus on the here and now. You might also be feeling uncertain about what the future holds. Try to anchor yourself in the moment instead. Remind yourself of everything you’ve achieved in the last couple of years, in a really tough situation. All you have to do right now is get through your exams.

Your school, university or college will probably have published their own practical tips and suggestions for coping with exams this summer, so check the website or ask your teacher or tutor.

If you’re really struggling – for example not sleeping or eating properly, or worrying obsessively – it might be a good idea to seek some form of mental health support. Your school or university could be the first port of call, or you could discuss how you’re feeling with your GP.

One of the treatment options you discuss together might be CBT, which helps with managing the symptoms of stress and anxiety. Online CBT from ieso can be accessed without any waiting times, allowing you to get help quickly. Find out whether we can offer CBT to you here.

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